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What have the Huguenots ever done for us.
14th May 2024
Vivian Lawes

So, what have the Huguenots ever done for us?

Migration and its impact on the Arts in Britain


The short answer from our talk was that the Huguenots have done a huge amount for the arts in Britain but please read on. 

The talk was fascinating and made sense of all those long school lessons drilling us about the importance of the reformer John Calvin, the Edict of Nantes, St Bartholomew day massacre and other dimly remembered dates.

Astonishingly 1 in 6 of us is estimated to have Huguenot heritage and we should be proud of it.  France’s drain of their most skilled labourers not once but twice in a period of a hundred years, proved an immense boost to the arts and crafts in Britain as  protestant Huguenots fled  religious persecution to neighbouring countries. Wisely Viv did not stray into modern parallels of mass emigration, but the sad reflection is that people are still leaving their birth countries to avoid death and persecution.

The Catholic church was arguably in need of reform when Luther pinned his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg in 1517.  John Calvin increased the pressure with his Institutes of the Christian Religion   published in 1536 where he exhorted his followers to believe in predestination through personal effort and to take the bible literally.  Followers moved away from the glorious gilt of the catholic church and became unadorned hard-working protestants. The movement spread fast through Europe and threatened the very French state.

In response to this threat, two particular episodes, the St Bartholomew’s day massacre (actually a three-month killing spree) in 1572 and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) led to this mass emigration and Britain welcomed around 50,000 people at a time when the population was only 5 million.

During the reign of protestant William and Mary a flowering of the silk trade famously based in Spitalfields in East London, and intricate metal and silver work centred on Soho ushered in a glorious period of British craft and design. Wandering around that part of London there is an unmistakably French feel to many street names.

Local Hampshire examples of Huguenot skills and influence can be found in the beautiful porcelain at the Allen Gallery in Alton,  Henri Portal’s papermill  1727, the many Huguenot memorials in Winchester cathedral including the Dean Garnier garden, Whitchurch silk mill,  Daniel Marot’s marble hall in Petworth House.

A little further away, the intricate Fountain screen by Jean Tijou at Hampton Court and Knole House in Kent which has perhaps the best collection of 17th Century furniture in the country.

I found  wonderful websites to use as a springboard to learn more about the Huguenot influence on our present day lives  or 

Lucy Picton-Turbervill

A member of The Arts Society
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